Concerns Heat Up Over Sobriety House Near School

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An addiction rehabilitation house near Top of the World Elementary School that recently changed to an all-male facility is causing concern among parents of school children.

After numerous complaints, TOW school principal Michael Conlon arranged a town hall meeting with City Manager John Pietig. The public meeting will take place from 6 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 2, in the multipurpose room at the elementary school, 21601 Tree Top Lane.

Concerns arise over sober living homes in neighborhoods because state and federal laws, not city laws, regulate and license drug and alcohol rehab houses. “My biggest concern is its proximity to a school site,” Conlon said.

The sober living house at 28872 Top of the World Dr. was formerly an all-female facility and is four doors away from the school. The school is an open campus, which means there is no physical perimeter, such as a security fence. The rehab house is licensed by the state Department of Health Care Services to house a maximum of six clients, according to city reports.

Pillars Recovery, based in Newport Beach, opened the Top of the World recovery house last October and also runs a facility in Newport Beach. Phone calls seeking comment were not returned.

City officials, police and district staff will be at the meeting to address residents’ questions, Conlon said, along with representatives from state Sen. John Moorlach’s and Assemblyman Matthew Harper’s office.

“The city’s hands are tied because they can’t write a city law against it. Newport Beach tried and they lost,” said Conlon.

A seven-year lawsuit alleged the city of Newport Beach’s regulations discriminated against individuals recovering from addictions. The case was settled last July for $5.25 million; the city spent another $4 million in legal fees.

Newport Beach ordinances remain in effect, according to city spokesperson Mary Locey. The city permit process regulates sobriety houses on a per-case basis to determine such things as over-concentration in any one area, their proximity to schools, parks and businesses selling alcohol, according to city permit standards. But the price Newport paid deters other cities from enacting similar regulations.

“We’re making sure we’re in compliance with the state law,” said Laguna Beach community development director Greg Pfost. “We don’t have a lot of leeway. That’s what cities are faced with right now.” Laguna Beach has no ordinances outside of state law that specifically regulate sober living facilities.

There are also federal anti-discrimination laws under the Fair Housing Act and American Disabilities Act that afford protections to occupants of sober living homes.

Other surrounding cities are facing the same unchartered local issues. “We can’t consider them businesses, which is what they really are,” said Laguna Niguel City Manager Dan Fox, who said there are nine sobriety houses in his city. “It’s like having a frat house or a rave party in the neighborhood.”

There are 14 licensed sober living homes in Laguna Beach, said Pfost. Unlicensed sobriety homes, which do not offer medical treatments, are not required to register with the city so the number is unknown, he said. If either type of facility is housing more than six residents, a permit process is required, he said.

Laura Storke’s home is between the rehab house and the elementary school. “Our street was one in which our children could play freely,” she said. “That’s all changed.”

Storke has two school-age children. “It’s not the type of environment where I feel comfortable letting my children play outside when there’s addicts walking around.” Prior to the meeting at TOW, Storke will meet with Assemblyman Harper and an assistant from Sen. Moorlach’s office about laws pertaining to detox homes, she said.

Steve Goldstein also has two students at TOW and lives less than a block away. “I’m pretty baffled how this type of for-profit business is allowed to operate within 500 feet of an elementary school,” he said. “I understand the need for these facilities, but why a facility like this would be allowed so close to a school is beyond me.”

The city is required to regard rehab homes the same as single-family residences, though the homes must also pass city fire and housing code inspections and comply with parking and nuisance rules.

Jenny Rankin, another TOW parent, said she wants the facility shut down. One of her concerns is whether the city is conducting sex-offender background checks on occupants as required by state and federal laws known as Megan’s laws.

“I don’t know who’s doing any type of Megan’s law checks on any of the occupants,” said the school principal. “It doesn’t go through the city. My biggest concern is its proximity to a school site. I would love the law to be rewritten and focus on, at the very least, that a facility should be a certain distance from a school.”

Other south county cities and schools are also struggling to balance anti-discrimination housing laws with the concerns of families and rights of rehab residents.

Crown Valley Elementary in Laguna Niguel went on lock-down when a fight broke out at a nearby rehab house at the beginning of the school year, counselor Steven Long said. Like TOW, the school is an open campus.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Maybe It should be brought to the attention of the administrators to the rehab facility that the current location is not secure for the tenants to occupy and safety concerns are with a school in close proximity harboring angry parents, and adjoining un-fenced open space area with coyotes, and mountain lions. How can they explain to their insurance carrier if one of the patients went off his meds and ran outside naked and was mistaken for a meal; was stalked and eaten by wild life?
    Or found snared un-conscience in a coyote trap 24 hours later?

  2. Last time I noticed – those in recovery for the mental health issue of addiction weren’t running rampant in the streets molesting children. Maybe things are different up there at TOW?! There is no basis for a correlation between sexual offenses and addiction, or between frat houses & raves and addiction treatment homes. However there is a strong correlation between mental health and physical health. Most importantly, both have patients who are protected by HIPA, housing and anti discrimination laws, basic rights of every citizen.

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